Cast of Wonders 241: Mr. Quacky in Space (Artemis Rising 3)
Illustration by Mat Weller. Artemis Rising logo designed by Scott Pond.
Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.
Mr. Quacky in Space
by Amanda Helms
At least Mr. Quacky hadn’t maimed anyone. If Olivia went by her predecessor’s logs, it was only a matter of time.
She pulled her rabbit-ear hat over her head–It helps you blend with the scenery, Vivian, the ship’s entertainment director, had told her–and waited for the guests to evacuate Mr. Quacky’s Splash Zone, the collection of three kiddie pools located on the Space Farm Deck. A few hobby-horse-sized mini-steamducks–the Quacklings–bobbed in the farthest pool. The wall screens played loops of a marsh featuring cartoonish, wide-eyed birds, rabbits, and deer that gamboled and giggled and, worst of all, joined wing to paw to hoof to sing songs about the power of friendship.
Olivia had served as the steam-tronics engineer for Space Adventure! Centripetal Space Station (proud affiliate of Pulsar Integrated Media and Entertainment) for barely ten cycles, and already she had the damn songs memorized.
Once the last of the uninjured filed out, Olivia moved deeper into the Splash Zone. The hat seemed to work, because she went unnoticed by Quacky’s victims: two girls and a boy, all under five. They howled while the on-duty doctor, wearing a chipmunk costume, checked them over for serious injuries.
Olivia presumed that the three children were riding Mr. Quacky when the duck overheated. The children, thighs burning, must have leapt off the duck, injuring the oldest girl in the process. She didn’t seem too badly hurt, because soon the chipmunk-doctor led the children away. Olivia caught murmurs of how Medical had “squirrel friends eager to help.”
She drew alongside Mr. Quacky. Someone had already pulled him out of the pool. Dripping from his rivets, he perched, inert, at the edge. He wasn’t designed to blink, but his mouth moved. Whenever he opened it, Olivia expected flesh-rending canines.
Toothless, Quacky’s lower jaw gaped. “Hey, kids! Would you like to ride Mr. Qua–”
Olivia reached down Quacky’s gullet and yanked out the speaker wires. Her arm caught on something sharp. “Dam– darn it!” She glanced around; if anyone caught her swearing with guests near, she’d get another demerit. Too many, and her probation period would be extended.
Beads of blood welled along the shallow gash on her forearm. With a baleful glare at Quacky, Olivia used her sleeve to mop up the blood. It wasn’t serious enough to warrant a trip to Medical, so she shifted to Quacky’s side and opened the panel concealing the steam engine.
Using steam engines aboard a space station was ludicrous, considering the fuel requirements. Yet Olivia considered sticking them in giant metal creatures intended to play with children an even worse idea. What nutjob thought it’d be a good plan to employ an enormous steam-powered duck to paddle around the kiddie pools? How Space Adventure! had thus far avoided a massive lawsuit boggled her mind.
Well, she just needed to put in her dues, qualify for the family assistance program, and get her mom new lungs.
Letting her toolbox clank to the ground, Olivia pulled out her flashlight to hunt for whatever broke in Mr. Quacky this time, the sixth in four cycles. Sometimes she wanted to take a blowtorch to his ass, let the raging flames lick his metal feathers, caress his beak and breast, heat the metal white-hot until it melted in the embrace of the fire, the beautiful fire . . .
She shook herself. That would be another ten demerits.
After fifteen minutes, she’d cleared out the pistons and checked them for movement. Maybe the issue was that the last one kept hitching. The plates had some sediment build-up, and one of the pipes had slight corrosion. Frowning, she made a mental note to put in a request for grease along with her outstanding order for replacement pipes. Not that it would do any good; her predecessor, Tyson, had left log after log of denied materials requests.
Straining, she pushed Mr. Quacky back into the pool and set him running.
“Hey, kids! Who wants to play Duck, Duck, Goose with Mr. Quacky? I’ll be a duck!”
The door to the Splash Zone opened. Olivia wrested her gaze away from Quacky. She must’ve imagined that red glint to his eyes.
Vivian, hair coiffed into a unicorn horn that matched her pearlescent costume and ruby horse tail, strode in. She was never quite unsmiling–Olivia figured it came from working with ornery guests all the time–but this smile wasn’t the beneficent beam Olivia would have ascribed to a unicorn. This smile was a threat.
“That, Olivia, was the third time I have had to apologize to a guest on your behalf.”
What Olivia wanted to say was, You wouldn’t have to apologize if corporate would spring on the measly fifty credits for new parts.
What she actually said was a variation on Placation Script 34.2.1 (amazing how many of those, intended for guests, applied to Vivian). “I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but as you know, Mr. Quacky is one of the older steam-tronics. As such, it requires more extensive maintenance.” Her mouth veered from the script without approval. “If you would just let me bring in some new tech, like I suggested in my interview–”
“Guests come to Space Adventure! in large part for Mr. Quacky. He reminds them of simpler times.”
Yes, simpler times IN SPACE!
Discretion regained, Olivia did not say that, either.
“If we lost Mr. Quacky, our revenue would drop by at least twenty-five percent. You must keep him functioning. Believe me when I say your job depends on it.” Tail swaying, Vivian marched to the exit.
Olivia sighed. Lungs for Mom.
In the pool, Mr. Quacky spun about and paddled back toward Olivia. “Mr. Quacky’s ready for an adventure!”
Wait a minute. Had she reconnected Quacky’s speaker?
“A SPACE adventure!”
She must have. No other way Quacky could gibber at her, after all.
Olivia crouched beside the pool as Quacky swam to its edge. She caught hold of his neck and dragged him closer.
His head turned so that one of his unblinking eyes stared at hers. “Mr. Quacky will consume your soul.”
“Huh.” Olivia swallowed. “That shouldn’t be in your programming.” She reached for Quacky’s beak.
No longer toothless, Quacky crunched down on her hand.
The wall screens in Medical boasted a marsh scene similar to Mr. Quacky’s Splash Zone, but at least the animals didn’t sing.
Dr. Porcupine (Dr. Chipmunk being off-duty) held Olivia’s hand under an LED to examine the punctures and clucked.
“Flex your hand for me, please . . . and turn it . . . full range of motion, good! Now, on a scale of one to ten, what is your pain level?” Dr. Porcupine pointed to the wall screen. In place of the marsh, pictures of squirrel heads flashed successively. Their expressions, helpfully numbered, ranged from beatific drug trip to Oh my god I am drowning in a vat of corrosive acid. Once the flashing finished, the previous nine heads popped up again.
“Um, five?” Squirrel head #5 looked closer to cramping gut and painful bowel movement than anything else, but if presented with the pain scale sans squirrels, Olivia would have chosen five.
“Moderate, then. I’ll prescribe a painkiller.” Dr. Porcupine squeezed antibacterial ointment on Olivia’s hand. Smoothing it into the wound, she asked, “How’d you say you got hurt?”
Olivia hadn’t, because she couldn’t come to terms with saying Mr. Quacky bit me. Because she couldn’t answer how he bit her. Because biting and threats to her immortal soul were not in his programming.
“I was working on Mr. Quacky.”
Dr. Porcupine–who was really Dr. Singh, according to her name tag–clucked again. “Say no more. The last steam-tronics engineer–” She shook her head. “It’s a sad world we live in–well, sad space station–when we can’t keep our demons under control.”
“Keep our what now?”
“No one told you?” Dr. Singh frowned. “It’s technically ‘sentient amorphous interstellar being Gamma Xi A45,’ but a lot of us use ‘demon’ for short. Because their behavior is so similar, you know.”
Dr. Singh laughed. “If demons existed, I mean!” She sobered. “Seriously, no one mentioned this?”
Olivia felt her expression slip to squirrel head #7, I have stepped on a poisonous sea urchin. “I need to speak with Vivian.”
If Vivian’s wilted unicorn-hair was anything to go by, she hadn’t had a good day.
Well, Olivia’s had been worse.
She thumped her bandaged arm–Dr. Singh had tended also to the scrape–on Vivian’s desk. “I think you left some key information out of my job description.”
Vivian arched her brows as if to say, Oh, you think so? “You are our steam-tronics engineer. Your main duty is to keep our steam-tronics in proper working order.”
“You didn’t mention the little detail of Mr. Quacky being possessed by a sentient amorphous alien gamma something-something forty-five!”
“‘Interstellar being,’ not ‘alien.’” Vivian took a sip of her neon-pink electrolyte goo. “And most people call it a demon. Shorthand.”
“Did Quacky have something to do with why Tyson left the position?”
Vivian’s ever-present smile quivered on one side, like she wanted to snarl. “As I said during your interview, Tyson turned out not to be a good fit.”
“I’m only asking these questions because I’m trying to be a good fit.”
The smile steadied.
“Why is that thing being exposed to children?” Olivia wanted to pound her head on the wall.
Vivian’s smile tightened. “It will not harm the children. It understands the importance of our bottom line and good customer relations.”
Olivia knew she had her differences with Vivian, but this was the first time she thought she worked for an idiot. “You’ve got a . . . creature nicknamed a demon agreeing not to hurt children just because it’d be detrimental to profit? Why did you let it in Quacky in the first place? Sentient amorphous thingies aren’t necessary to the operation of steam-tronics. I don’t understand what either of you is getting out of this deal.”
Vivian took another sip of her goo. “That information is confidential. All you need to know to be a good fit is that this arrangement is in our mutual best interests, and that A45 has agreed not to harm the children.”
Olivia attempted to smooth her hair and knocked off her rabbit ears, having forgotten she still wore them. Maybe Vivian was an idiot, but Olivia knew she wouldn’t explain the confidentiality bit.
Okay, so tell me this. If, um, A45 can talk without speakers, can’t it fix itself?”
“Oh, probably. But we don’t call it a demon for nothing. Why fix itself when your struggles are so amusing?”
How many demerits would throttling the boss get her? “My mental and physical suffering is part of its payment?”
Steepling her fingers, Vivian said, “That’s one way of looking at it.”
“There are entities mandating my safe working conditions.”
Vivian’s smile showed no teeth. “That’s where Pulsar Integrated’s status as a universe-wide entertainment conglomerate stands us in good stead. It’s best to remember, Olivia, that we can crush you and your ‘mandating entities’ as easily as blinking.”
Sweat beaded Olivia’s palms. “I could quit.”
“You could. And then we will sue you for nonpayment of your student debt, which we kindly forgave as a condition of your employment. Then, since we know you cannot afford to repay your debt, we will be forced to seek remuneration from family. Your mother still needs new biosynthetic lungs, yes? I seem to recall that during your interview, you were quite eager to hear about Pulsar Integrated’s family assistance program.”
It had been a mistake to attend Pulsar Integrated Technical College, guaranteed job or no. Olivia saw that now.
Satisfied, Vivian leaned back in her chair. “Hiro called shortly before you came here. Despite your stellar work, Quacky is still giving our guests some trouble. See if you can fix him properly this time. And maybe give him a little blood. He’s probably hungry.”
Once again, Mr. Quacky’s Splash Zone was clear except for Mr. Quacky himself and the few inert Quacklings floating in the far pool. Quacky rested on his side, one leg tucked into his chassis, the other stuck in mid-paddle. His access panel lay open. Quacky himself had probably done it. He–it–meant to lure her in.
Olivia gripped the handle of her toolbox so tightly her nails bit into her palm. Her tablet pinged and she nearly dropped everything. She unlocked the tablet, scanned the message.
Corporate had denied her requests for replacements. Figured.
With extreme caution, Olivia crept forward. Maybe Quacky was asleep. Did sentient amorphous thingummies sleep?
Quacky didn’t so much as twitch.
Settling on a pool chair three meters away, she scrolled on her tablet. Not that it’d been much use so far–Quacky’s possession being the glaring omission–but maybe looking through Tyson’s documentation would give her some ideas of what to do without replacement parts.
The regular logs proved unhelpful, so finally she navigated to Tyson’s personal journal, which she had learned to avoid since much of it consisted of badly written fiction featuring “Dyson” saving a string of helpless female human-alien hybrids, cyborg-aliens, and, in the latest, most disturbing scene, a human-duck hybrid.
“Stockholm syndrome,” Olivia muttered.
More scrolling, then she stopped. Quacky spoke to me today. Ah. The moment of Tyson’s disillusionment.
His experience had gone similarly to hers, although Quacky threatened his testicles, not his soul. Bad fiction or no, Olivia winced on Tyson’s behalf.
She kept reading, paused, reread, felt her jaw drop. “Holy shi–shnikes, Gamma Xis are shadow majority shareholders in Pulsar Integrated?” She scanned the text. Tyson’s journal claimed the sale wasn’t reported to the Universal Securities and Exchanges Authority, so Pulsar Integrated owed billions in back taxes as a result.
Metal creaked. Olivia glanced up.
“All fear and tremble at Mr. Quacky, whose name means Despoiler of Galaxies and Destroyer of Universes–”
It was the wrong thing to do.
Deep within Mr. Quacky’s bowels, something sparked. A gout of vermilion flame exploded from his mouth. It scorched the cement deck. Flaming gloriously, Quacky rocked and hoisted himself upright. His legs trembled, then locked. Quacky roared out another blast of fire. Olivia caught her breath, reached out–
–recalled herself. Threw herself backward. Fell off the pool chair.
“Puny fleshbag, Mr. Quacky will not be slandered! You will suffer the consequences of your denigration!”
She ran for the door.
“MR. QUACKY DEMANDS SACRIFICE!”
That did not strike her as a good sign.
Four hours later saw Olivia holed up in the steerage air ducts. She tapped feverishly on her tablet, attempting to break through Space Adventure!’s firewall and tell someone, anyone, about the Gamma Xis’ majority shares in Pulsar and that, by the way, one of them possessed the beloved Mr. Quacky, eating staff as a job perk. (Even if he did spout pretty, pretty fire.)
Her education at Pulsar Integrated Technical College proved useless when hacking its affiliates.
Footsteps echoed to her through the grille. Olivia froze. She’d wedged herself as deep into the duct as she could. Not deep enough. Shadows stopped in front of the grille. The metal screeched as four security guards unscrewed it and pulled it off.
Vivian somehow smiled and glowered at the same time.
“Olivia. This behavior does not become a Space Adventure! employee.”
“You have an illegal agreement with the Gamma Xis–”
For the first time Olivia could recall, Vivian’s smile faltered. She tugged the tablet out of Olivia’s hands.
Olivia punched the closest security guard in the arm, but the four still wrested her out of the duct.
Vivian threw down Olivia’s tablet and crushed it with one stiletto heel. “Congratulations. You are officially assigned the duty of sacrifice to Mr. Quacky.”
Hysteria bubbled up. “Being a sacrifice is not in my job description!”
“Of course it is.” Vivian tapped her own tablet, then angled it at Olivia. It showed a document with Olivia’s name at the top and her signature at the bottom. And, in the middle, helpfully highlighted, the heading Job Functions and, a few lines below, Other duties as assigned.
When Olivia met Vivian’s gaze, the older woman was smiling again, like the cat that had not only eaten the canary, but topped it off with caviar pȃté.
Vivian shook out a fuzzy white jumpsuit complete with pink belly, cotton tail, and paws. She eyed Olivia. “Might be a bit short in the legs, but it’ll do.” She summoned her minions to force Olivia into the jumpsuit. Olivia kicked and fought, but within two minutes, she’d been zipped up.
They’d taken her to the employee-only dressing room adjacent to Mr. Quacky’s Splash Zone. Aside from its single bench, the dressing room normally didn’t contain seating, let alone a chair with straps attached to its arms, back, and base. Vivian must have arranged to have the chair brought in for just this occasion. The guards bolted Olivia in.
Her heart throbbed in her chest. “This is what happened to Tyson, isn’t it? He learned the truth about the Gamma Xis from Quacky, and you ‘sacrificed’ him.”
“Yes. Pity, too; the idiot didn’t think to negotiate his salary, so we got him cheap.” Vivian shook her head. “You know, we might have worked this out if you had just done your job and hadn’t gone poking around.”
“In that case, you shouldn’t have transferred Tyson’s files to me!”
Someone had found Olivia’s rabbit-ear hat, its synthetic fur melted into little blobs at the tips. It smelled like burned carpet. Vivian plunked it on Olivia’s head, then spun her to face a full-length mirror. Olivia was forced to witness the monstrosity she became as Pierce, who normally did the makeup for the actors in the nightly shows, painted a red nose and whiskers onto her face. Olivia writhed and cursed him as he worked, managing to get in one bite. By the time he finished, she had three overlong whiskers, one too short, and red from her nose stained her cheek.
As Pierce trekked to Medical, Vivian checked her watch. “Five minutes to show time.” She rubbed her temples. “I hate the sacrifices. The theatricality of them.” Said the entertainment director. “Take these ridiculous costumes.” She gestured at Olivia, then attempted to cock one rabbit ear at a jaunty angle. Olivia snapped her teeth at Vivian’s hand, missed.
Unperturbed, Vivian said, “But A45 likes them. And we have to keep our majority shareholders happy. Even the unhinged ones who think it’d be a great lark to hole up in one of those ‘quaint steam-powered simulacra of Earth-creatures,’ I believe it was.” She sighed. “Part of the cost of running a universe-wide entertainment-based conglomerate, I suppose.”
“Yes, when you’ve got the equivalent of demons as majority shareholders! If people knew about them, and about Quacky eating people, no one would come here!”
Vivian patted Olivia’s cheek. “Oh my poor dear. You have an overly idealistic view of the human race. Bread and circuses, yes?”
The main lights in Mr. Quacky’s Splash Zone were off, leaving only the orange emergencies along the edges of the floor for illumination–those, and Quacky’s eyes, glowing red like his shorthand namesake’s. Quacklings bobbed behind him. Were they possessed as well? But they’d never spoken to Olivia.
Never demanded sacrifice.
The same four security guards who’d pulled her out the air duct carried her, still bound to the chair, before Quacky, who stood at the edge of his pool. Vivian hadn’t come; something about planning the children’s puppet magic show.
Sweat trickled down Olivia’s shoulder blades and beaded on her brow. The guards set the chair down and scurried out.
She attempted a smile. “You don’t want to eat me.”
“Mr. Quacky demands sacrifice.”
“We had some good times, didn’t we? I mean, the way your boiler broke down three times on my first cycle, and I fixed it. Sort of. Fun stuff, right? And boy, you really had me going! I had no idea you were really a de–sentient amorphous . . .”
Quacky waddled closer.
“. . . interstellar . . .”
His jaw gaped. The teeth were long and sharp.
“. . . Gamma . . .”
His jaw unhinged and stretched so wide she could see the blue-white flame of his boiler dancing. The fire– “Beautiful,” she said.
Then recalled herself and screamed.< She threw herself to the side, knocking the chair over. The impact jarred her bones. Desperate, she forced herself to slam against her restraints, scooting the chair one inch, two, three. Heat bloomed over her. The fur of her sleeve caught fire. She howled and hopped. If she had to die, at least her life insurance would cover her mother’s biosynthetic lungs-- One more hop. Olivia reached the edge of the pool, overbalanced, fell in. Sank as the water’s distortion painted graceful patterns in the flames roiling above her.
Warmth filled her chest. If this was death, it wasn’t so bad.
Wait. Sensation wasn’t part of death.
She heard–heard!–ringing that echoed with metallic pings, resolving themselves into sirens. Coldness lapped at her bottom half in gentle waves. Sight filtered in, like someone peeled away a layer of semi-opaque tissue paper.
Flames ravaged Mr. Quacky’s Splash Zone, despite the raining fire sprinklers. The pool chairs burned, and somehow oil must have gotten into the pools, because flames crackled above them. One of them licked Olivia’s metal feathered breast. Pleasure filled her, until realization hit.
Dammit. She was a Quackling.
At the far end of the pool lazed Mr. Quacky, Despoiler of Galaxies and Destroyer of Universes. He looked much too smug with himself.
She’d just realized she’d ascribed capital letters to the moniker when words reverberated in what now passed for her head. Mr. Quacky is pleased you at last recognize his magnificence, former fleshbag.
This was what she could look forward to, a future existence with telepathic, sentient amorphous interstellar being Gamma Xi A45? Which, considering she could hear his thoughts, Olivia supposed she was too, now.
Weren’t you going to consume my soul?
Mr. Quacky reconsidered. You are less reprehensible than most fleshbags. A45’s “tone” turned bashful. You called Mr. Quacky beautiful.
Crap. She had. And meant it.
To distract them both, she said/thought, What do the Gamma Xis care about majority shares in Pulsar Integrated?
Having a controlling interest in the universe’s largest entertainment conglomerate is a sound investment strategy. A pause. And call me by my flesh-name, Mr. Quacky Despoiler of Galaxies and Destroyer of Universes.
Er, you know “Mr. Quacky” doesn’t actually mean that, don’t you?
Silence. Then, Vivian assured me it was an accurate translation of my name— There followed a series of clicks, glottal stops, and fricatives that Olivia could only guess A45’s race had invented during an extended stay in bodies with multiple tongues and larynxes.
Well, Vivian lied. “Mr. Quacky” means something more like “lovable male waterfowl who is amused by children and makes copious quacking noises.”
“Mr. Quacky” does not strike fear and awe into puny fleshbags?
This silence lasted longer than the first. [clicks, glottal stops, and fricatives] abhors liars.
The door to the Splash Zone opened. Space Adventure! employees wielding fire extinguishers emerged and sprayed the flames down.
Before the flames were fully out, Vivian tottered in. Hands on her hips and unicorn-hair wilted from the still-falling water, she turned slowly, taking in the scorch marks, the melted pool chairs, the errant flames. She seemed fazed at the prodigious amount of fire A45 had produced.
But only momentarily.
“Okay, okay.” Vivian pulled out her tablet and tapped on it furiously. “This can still work. We’ll call it Mr. Quacky: Hellfire!”
Across the expanse of pool, A45 peered at Olivia. Will you eat her, or shall I?
Working for Pulsar Integrated as a puny fleshbag hadn’t worked out well. Maybe Quackling-style sentient amorphous interstellar being would.
After all, now she reported to a majority shareholder.
Vivian didn’t hear Olivia’s creaking joints as she drifted closer. Nor did Vivian hear Olivia say, Let’s try her family-style.
About the Author
Amanda Helms is a science fiction and fantasy writer whose fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Cackle of Cthulhu anthology, Daily Science Fiction, Future Science Fiction Digest, and elsewhere. Amanda blogs infrequently at amandahelms.com and tweets with a smidgen more frequency @amandaghelms. She and her husband live in Colorado with their increasingly lazy Boxer mix.
About the Narrator
Katherine Inskip is the editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories and poems at Motherboard, the Dunesteef, Luna Station Quarterly, Abyss & Apex and Polu Texni.
About the Artist
The Artemis Rising 3 image was commissioned from Ashley Mackenzie. Ashley is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, CA she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing she can be found reading, playing videogames or thinking about her next project.